Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks
In this post and the last (and the next!), we’re looking for ways to make writing instruction related to the Common Core Standards manageable. One way to do that is by focusing on essential writing features common to all three CCSS umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. In Part 1, we considered four features:
- Purpose and audience
In Part 2 (this week), we’ll look at Features 6 and 7:
And in Part 3 (coming up right after Thanksgiving), we’ll review the final two:
- Conventions (and Presentation)
As a reminder, please read through the writing standards (www.commoncorestandards.org), focusing on your own grade level. Now—on to transitions and wording (aka, word choice)!
FEATURE 5: Transitions
A writer’s thinking is not always easy to follow. Transitions help. They form bridges between ideas, paragraphs, or chapters, orienting or alerting the reader, and guiding him/her from thought to thought to thought. Here are just a handful of things transitions can do—you and your students can no doubt think of many more:
- They can link periods of time: Later, In an hour, Momentarily, Just minutes before, The next day, Years later, At that moment, While we slept, As we watched, During the night, As the tide came in, During the Pleistocene Period . . .
- They can orient us spatially: On top of the bureau, Behind the door, Across the street, Just beyond the fence, At the back of the room, By my side, In the underbrush, Above her signature, Below the lake’s surface, Within her peripheral vision, On the other side of the world, Across the galaxy . . .
- Transitions can signal a reversal or contrast: However, Although, To everyone’s surprise, Unexpectedly, Surprisingly, In contrast, Despite all this, Shockingly enough, Unbelievably though, On the other hand, To look at things another way . . .
- They can show cause and effect: Therefore, As a result, Because of this, Since this happened, For this reason, Consequently . . .
- They can set up an example or quotation: To illustrate, For example, As one person put it, To see how this works, In one instance, Repeatedly, In the words of one expert, As research now shows us, Results of the study suggest . . .
- Transitions can also indicate support or emphasis: In fact, In addition, Besides, Indeed, Moreover, Furthermore, As everyone predicted, What’s more, To no one’s surprise, Unquestionably . . .
As the preceding examples show, transitions are not always single words—though they’re often depicted that way on lists. In fact, transitions can be multi-word expressions, whole sentences—even paragraphs.
One of my favorite paragraph-long transitions is the ending to the fourth chapter in Roald Dahl’s classic autobiography, Boy. We’ve just been introduced to Mrs. Pratchett, proprietress of the candy shop, “a small skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry” (1984, 33). After just two pages, we not only know her; we despise her. How can we help it? She dishes up fudge by digging into it with her blackened fingernails. So we’re not surprised by this end-of-chapter confession—which is a masterful transition into the chapter that follows:
So you can well understand that we had it in for Mrs Pratchett in a big way, but we didn’t quite know what to do about it. Many schemes were put forward but none of them was any good. None of them, that is, until suddenly, one memorable afternoon, we found the dead mouse.
The perfect bridge between before and after, this brilliant transition sums up how the children feel, and offers us a hint of what’s to come. The mouse is a tease, like a quick peek at the weapon in a murder mystery, and it’s delightful that the words “dead mouse” come at the very end of the paragraph. We’re humming along, reading about schemes that don’t work, and bam, the writer drops a dead mouse right onto the page in front of our noses. Perfect. Dahl doesn’t tell us what he and his friends planned to do with the mouse because that would kill the suspense. We can imagine, of course. And to find out if we’re right, we must read on.
Having a conversation. Transitions can be taught in a very mechanical way, as if each and every sentence should open with a transitional word, phrase, or clause. This results in extremely unnatural writing, as illustrated by this example from an eighth grade writing assessment:
My best friend is John. The reason he’s my best friend is because he’s good company. Another reason is that he’s nice to me all the time. Also, we’ve known each other for more than two years. Secondly, my parents enjoy having him at our house. Even more, we look alike. Next, we have many things in common. Another thing—we get along. Also we like the same girls. Secondly, many girls like us, too . . .
There’s more—but you get the idea. Sometimes transitions are essential, but this writer is building suspension bridges where stepping stones would do the trick.
A less formulaic way to think about transitions is that they help a writer have something approaching a conversation with the reader. If we were really having a conversation right now, chatting over coffee and biscotti, I would be watching your body language and facial expressions to see if you were following my train of thought—or if I needed to repeat, expand, or rephrase something. In writing we can’t do that, so we have to do the next best thing, which is to make the trail of our thinking as easy to follow as possible.
Consider the following explanation of how modern mathematics began with the simple concept of counting. It’s from Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife (2000, 6). I’ve underlined the transitional words to make them stand out—but you’d notice them anyway:
It’s difficult for a modern person to imagine a life without zero, just as it’s hard to imagine life without the number seven or the number 31. However, there was a time when there was no zero—just as there was no seven and 31. It was before the beginning of history, so paleontologists have had to piece together the tale of the birth of mathematics from bits of stone and bone. From these fragments, researchers discovered that Stone Age mathematicians were a bit more rugged than modern ones. Instead of blackboards, they used wolves.
(Wolves? More about this last line later.) To fully appreciate how much these transitions add to the writer-reader conversation, try reading the Seife passage aloud without them. Hear the difference? It still makes sense, but it’s jarring, abrupt, terse. Without transitions, we lose that sense that a thoughtful writer is leading us through the discussion—not forging ahead with the flashlight off.
Fill in the blanks. One of the best ways to teach transitions is to ask students to fill in the blanks. Try it. I’ve left the transition out of the following sentence from Gaia Warriors, Nicola Davies’ nonfiction text on global warming (2011, 13). How would you begin this passage?
____ you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.
Was it obvious? Or did you need to think about it? Sometimes, there’s more than one possible sensible answer. But usually, there are many answers that would make no sense. This is why transitions matter. They point the reader in one direction, and if we change them, we point the reader somewhere else. For example, imagine this passage beginning with any of the following: Until, Because, Whenever, Although. All of these tamper with the meaning. Here’s the author’s original:
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’ve heard about climate change: all those scary predictions about melting ice caps, killer storms, rising sea levels and severe droughts.
OK—that was just one word. For more of a challenge, try this one from Lewis Thomas’s essay “On Warts” (The Medusa and the Snail, 1995, 77). Warning—this transition is a multi-word phrase (not that you have to match Thomas exactly):
The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, __________________ , they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.
Maybe you’re thinking—hey, wouldn’t but or however or nevertheless work? Yes—they would. But those words wouldn’t direct our thinking as much as Thomas wants to. Here’s what he wrote:
The strange thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, and yet, inexplicably and often very abruptly, they come to an end of their lives and vanish without a trace.
Connecting two sentences. Think how much we learn from Thomas’s few transitional words. Transitions aren’t throw-aways; they carry meaning. Here’s another exercise to try. Fill in any transitional word or phrase(s) you like to connect the following two thoughts:
Hank loved Irene. He wondered if she loved him back.
Here are a few possibilities—all slightly different in meaning:
- Oddly enough, Hank loved Irene, but often wondered if she loved him back.
- Hank loved Irene, but after finding the gun, wondered if she loved him back.
- For a time, Hank loved Irene. During those few months, he wondered if she loved him back.
- Hank loved Irene, though it was hard. Every time he ate her pot roast, he wondered if she loved him back.
- Hank loved Irene, even if she was a humble turtle. He wondered if she loved him back.
- To the best of his ability, Hank loved Irene. In his own pitbull fashion, he wondered if she loved him back.
Following are six things you can do to teach transitions to students:
- Have a transitions treasure hunt. Ask students to find (and list, as a class) as many transitions as they can within a specified period—say, ten minutes. Look through textbooks, literature, business writing, ads (they’re FILLED with transitions), newspaper articles, your school’s publications, or any other sources. Mix it up. I guarantee that the resulting list will have a much more lasting impression than any pre-published list you can post.
- Talk about a few of the transitions on your list. Don’t go crazy. If you go through them all, one by one, you and your students will soon find transitions tedious. But if you pick out three or four of the most interesting, and ask, “What does this show? What sort of bridge is this?” you will help students understand the nature of transitions. Be sure you ask students to read the sentence (or paragraph) from which they pulled the example. This helps put things into context.
- Look for extended transitions. The transitions at the ends of paragraphs aren’t always brilliant or even noteworthy. But sometimes they are. Sometimes, that final sentence guides us right into the next paragraph. So check for those end-of-paragraph guiding sentences. (For a perfect example, re-read the Seife paragraph on counting that ends with the sentence Instead of blackboards, they used wolves. Wouldn’t you like to know why? or how? Gotta read that next paragraph!) Good authors also know that there’s no handier time to stop reading than when one finishes a chapter. Only really strong transitions (like Roald Dahl’s reference to the dead mouse) can keep us turning pages when we feel like stretching or reaching for a chocolate.
- Play the missing transitions game. Keep it simple. You might choose an example with only one transition missing. Here’s an easy one from the chapter on Mrs. Pratchett—there’s only one missing word. What would make sense here? “Her blouse had bits of breakfast all over it, toast-crumbs and tea stains and splotches of dried egg-yolk. It was her hands, ______, that disturbed us most. They were disgusting. They were black with dirt and grime.” Remember, the question is NOT What did Dahl write? But rather, What makes sense? What builds the bridge? Hint: It’s one of the following: therefore, however, in conclusion, delightfully enough, for example. If you said however, you heard the contrast. That’s the bridge. Would your students hear it?
- Don’t forget to comment. When one of your students makes a clear, definite connection, one that changes the meaning of a sentence or helps you easily make the leap to the next paragraph or section, say something like this: Thanks for helping me make that connection! This makes an impression, and is infinitely more powerful than the more familiar negative comment—How on earth did you get to this point? Where’s your transition?
- Find another way to say it. For many students, the word transition has a kind of technical sound that dehumanizes it. Try connection, connecting words, bridge, link—or something similar. Once students understand how transitions work, they’ll appreciate them more in their reading, and using them in writing will come naturally.
FEATURE 6: Wording
Overview. “Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.” So said William Zinsser in his classic book On Writing Well (2006, 34). I love this bit of advice, but admittedly, we might have to modify it for the CCSS, perhaps amending it to read this way: The race in writing is not to the swift but to the clear and precise. (Note: For a full picture of what the CCSS demand with respect to word choice, be sure to check not only writing standards per se, but language arts standards as well.)
With respect to word choice, the standards emphasize such things as the following:
- Appropriate use of relevant terminology
- Use of words that link ideas (covered under transitions)
- Comfort with figurative language, such as metaphors or similes
- Use of descriptive language or sensory detail (in narrative)
Language can be formal or informal, and as with all writing features, needs to change to suit the occasion. We don’t wear tuxedos to the beach or flip-flops to the wedding. Sometimes it shifts within a single sentence, as in this line from the Introduction to Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times (2005): “The intensity of poetry, its imaginative fervor, its cadences, is not meant for the triumphant executive, but for people in a jam—you and me.” Keillor swings gracefully from lofty to humble, elegant to chatty, in a few keystrokes.
Keeping it measurable. Language can also be inspiring or provocative. It’s the key to voice. The right words can move us, touch our very souls, cause us to highlight passages or scribble quotations we tape to walls or send to friends. Such things are hard to measure. That doesn’t make them unimportant—quite the reverse. I mention this because the CCSS must, by definition, focus on the measurable. We need to keep this in mind because it’s easy to conclude that what does not appear in the CCSS is unimportant. The truth is, what does not appear may be vital—but difficult (or even impossible) to measure. We cannot very well have a standard that says “Students will write quotable prose.” Many will, of course—at some point—especially if we consistently share the literature that inspires us. But quotable prose is something to wish for, encourage, cherish, and invite. It is not something we can demand. I often wish the CCSS were subtitled “Some Important Stuff We Feel Confident We Can Measure.”
Clarity. Let’s begin with a functional (and pretty measurable) goal: clarity. In the simplest terms, clarity means that the text makes sense—and specifically, that the text makes sense to the intended reader. For example, a science writer would likely describe photosynthesis one way to a consortium of botanists and another way to a class of fourth graders. In other words, while clarity is certainly about word choice, it’s also about audience.
Following is an excerpt from an owner’s manual on boilers purchased to heat homes. Keep in mind that the audience is the lay user, not a technician or engineer:
To change the “normal room temperature”: Factory setting: 68 degrees F/20 degrees C from 06:00 to 22:00 hrs. The “normal room temperature” can be set between 37 and 99 degrees F/3 and 37 degrees C. Press 1, or 2, or 3 to select the desired heating circuit. Turn the selector knob; the temperature value appears in the display window. If this is not done, the following instruction appears in display: Select button 1-2 or button 1-3.
Will any of this be on the test? Seriously, I think they’re trying to tell me that the temperature is set at the factory for 68 Fahrenheit or 20 Celsius. This temperature will hold from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. I can change it if I want to, however, re-setting it for anything from 37 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, according to my personal need for warmth. I don’t know what the “desired heating circuit” is because this is not explained—but hopefully, it will become more evident after I push button 1, 2, or 3.
Here’s the deal, though: I have to read this passage slowly and more than once to squeeze even this much meaning out of it. That shouldn’t be. This is not written by an incompetent writer; it’s simply written by someone used to communicating with other technicians. This is important because a large number of our students will make a living that involves writing. They may not be writing poems or novels, but many will be writing reports, letters, PR documents, press releases, or technical manuals, just like this one. And those who can communicate clearly will be in high demand.
As the preceding example shows, clarity involves choosing the right words (sometimes non-technical words) and putting them together in a logical order that speaks to a targeted audience. So—right words, logical order, audience awareness. Is that enough? Not quite. There’s also much to be said for including all necessary information.
Clarity requires completeness. An entertaining little book, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht (1999, 57) contains some advice about what to do in a variety of situations—such as, if one is attacked by an alligator.
Point 1 says this: “If you are on land, try to get on the alligator’s back and put downward pressure on its neck.” Pardon? I know what the individual words mean—nothing technical here—but have to say I cannot picture myself (or any sane person) doing this. I need some context. Is this alligator at all large—say larger than a cat? Is anyone helping me? How does one mount an alligator—always on the left, as with a horse? In other words, I’m suggesting that clarity demands including all essential steps, not just the one where I turn into a stunt double.
Point 2 tells me to “Cover the alligator’s eyes.” Seriously? Not unless I can do it from 50 yards away. I can just see myself digging through my purse, saying, “Where the heck did I put that alligator bandana?” It seems to me that this writer, like the writer of the boiler manual, would benefit from a reality check titled “Know Your Audience.” To write clearly, we need to put ourselves in the reader’s place.
Details, details. Notice the contrast in this “full picture” example from Diane Ackerman (Cultivating Delight, 2001, 14). Though the topic is almost equally bizarre, her cautionary advice makes perfect sense because she helps us understand the circumstances under which a frog might find itself in a human mouth:
Never hide a frog in your mouth. Never lick a toad. Never kiss a warty small green male, however princely. Disgust is an underrated strategy. Many toads exude a toxic slime that makes predators recoil. The poisons tend to be hallucinogens, which teenagers are often tempted to sample, so each year some die from toad-licking. Toads won’t give you warts, but they can kill you.
The difference between this and the tip on blindfolding alligators is that Ackerman gives us detail and background info. She answers our most pressing question, which is, Why on earth would someone lick a toad or frog? Because, dear reader, hallucinogens (though often lethal) are (for some, anyway) tempting as all get-out. The best example of good word choice here, though, is “underrated strategy.” Who knew disgust was a strategy, much less an underrated one? We humans haven’t figured out that disgust is nature’s way of tipping us off. Gives you renewed respect for your instincts: e.g., repulsive could mean dangerous.
Precision. Clarity is also about using the just right word for the moment. Author Janell Cannon is known for her vivid, rich language and refusal to write down to children. In the picture book Crickwing (2000), she describes the capture of the artsy cockroach named Crickwing by a colony of ants: “He had no chance for escape as thousands of leafcutters swarmed over him, dragged him back to the anthill, and marched him down its dark, winding corridors.”
Brilliant. Not ants, but leafcutters. Very precise. They didn’t crawl over him; they swarmed. They didn’t pull him back; they dragged him. They didn’t take him down into the tunnel; they marched him into those dark, winding corridors.
We not only see the scene, but feel it, as if we were the ones being swarmed over, dragged, and marched to our doom. With its forceful parallel rhythm, the episode is meant to be horrific, and it is. Had she written, “The ants pulled Crickwing into their tunnel,” no one would be getting the chills—not even Crickwing.
Making meaning clear for the reader. Informational writing or argument often call for subject-specific terminology. The CCSS require that students not only use words appropriately and with understanding, but help readers understand them, as well. What does that look like? Here’s a clear explanation of the term speciation from Sneed Collard’s book Pocket Babies (2007, 11):
The marsupials that invaded South America, Antarctica, and Australia began evolving into many different species. Scientists call this process adaptive radiation or speciation. South America, for instance, gave rise to large marsupials that resembled bears and saber-toothed tigers. At a site called Riversleigh in Australia, scientists have unearthed an amazing variety of fossil marsupials, including nine-foot-tall kangaroos, marsupial lions, and ancestors of today’s koalas.
Note that Collard provides a simple definition for speciation, but also includes an example. This kind of attention to verbal detail makes his writing extremely easy to understand.
The expanded example. In her fascinating book Animals in Translation (2006), animal scientist Temple Grandin takes explanation a step further. First, she describes the concept of task analysis (a way of teaching handicapped students and sometimes animals) in these simple words: “If you wanted to teach a really complex behavior, all you had to do was break it down into its component parts and teach each little, tiny step separately, giving rewards along the way” (13). That’s easy enough to follow, but what I love is her expansion of the discussion:
Doing a task analysis isn’t as easy as it sounds, because nonhandicapped people aren’t really aware of the very small separate movements that go into an action like tying your shoe or buttoning your shirt . . . If you’ve ever tried to teach shirt buttoning to a person who has absolutely no clue how to do it, you soon realize that you don’t really know how to do it, either—not in the sense of knowing the sequence of tiny, separate motions that go into successfully buttoning a button. You just do it.
With this example, Grandin makes clear that word choice isn’t really about individual words (or synonyms) so much as it’s about concepts. (That’s why simply handing out vocabulary lists has only limited value.) Without the buttoning example, I would have only the most abstract and hard-to-recall sense of what task analysis is about. Now it’s a term I’ll remember forever—even though I don’t use it in my daily life. If you think about it, creating that kind of understanding is quite an achievement for a writer.
Figurative language. I want to pull one more example from Grandin to illustrate excellent use of metaphor. In this passage (214) on how the brain works, Grandin explains that simple, visceral fear happens in the amygdala—and very quickly. Analysis happens in the cortex, and takes longer. Only a few milliseconds longer, mind you—but in life or death circumstances, milliseconds count:
You’re walking down a path, you see something long, then, and dark in the path, and your amygdala screams, “It’s a snake!” Twelve milliseconds later your cortex has the second opinion: either, “It’s definitely a snake!” or, “It’s just a stick.” That doesn’t sound like very much time, but it makes all the difference in the world to whether you get bitten by that snake or not, assuming it is a snake and not a stick. The reason fast fear can be so fast is that accuracy is sacrificed for speed. Fast fear gives you a rough draft of reality.
The “rough draft of reality” is the perfect metaphor for helping me understand the nature of fast fear.
The CCSS require students to understand—and occasionally use—figures of speech. Why does this matter? Because metaphors, similes, or analogies take the unfamiliar and make it familiar by linking it to what readers already know. This strategy, though powerful, does not necessarily come naturally to students. That’s because they’re normally writing to us, their teachers, and believe we already know more about the subject (no matter what it is) than they do. This isn’t always true, naturally, but they write as if it were—as if they were teaching baking to Martha Stewart and dropping a few specifics could hardly matter less. This is a limiting perspective from which to write because it lets the writer off the hook when it comes to details or explanations. The writer-as-teacher, by contrast, has a distinct edge. When students write as if they were experts with something important and fascinating to share, as if every detail would make a difference to our understanding, their writing improves markedly.
Descriptive/sensory language. Descriptive or sensory language enhances both setting and character development in narrative writing (For much more on this, see the section on Detail in the previous post.)
I cannot imagine a better introduction to sensory language than the Preface to Gary Paulsen’s The Winter Room. It only runs a couple of pages, but within this short space, Gary transports us to the farm of his childhood, alive with the sensory details that linger in his memory—notably sounds and smells. Because of copyright restrictions, I can’t reproduce the whole piece here, much as I would love to. But look it up. You’ll be so glad you did. When you talk with your students about sensory detail or descriptive language, consider using this piece (1989, 1-3) to kick off your discussion. Don’t be surprised if many students want to write (almost immediately) about places memorable for them. (It’s stunning what memories are unleashed just by the smells of popcorn, pine, cinnamon, vanilla, or chocolate.) Here’s just a fragment from Paulsen’s Preface:
If books could be more, could show more, could own more, this book would have smells . . . . It would have the smells of old farms; the sweet smell of new-mown hay as it falls off the oiled sickle blade when the horses pull the mower through the field, and the sour smell of manure steaming in a winter barn . . . This book would have the smell of new potatoes sliced and frying in light pepper on a woodstove burning dry pine, the damp smell of leather mittens steaming on the back of the stovetop . . .
Books, Paulsen tells us, cannot by themselves have sounds, smells, and all the rest—because they need readers. “The book needs you” (3). Yes, books do need readers. Yes, it is a dance. But the words are the music.
Descriptive detail in informational writing. Does descriptive detail have a place in informational writing? Absolutely. Think how dull informational writing would be, what an absolute nightmare it would be to pay attention, if it were all charts, graphs, and statistics. Human readers need stories, examples, and images to hold onto. Otherwise, we can’t put all that information in its place—and what is more, we aren’t very compelled to do so. The abstract is only interesting when we have specific cases to which we can apply what we learn.
In The Animal Dialogues, Craig Childs teaches us about the brains of mosquitoes (2007, 283), first laying the groundwork with some factual information:
Of any creature this size, the mosquito has the most complex mechanical wiring known. Fifteen thousand sensory neurons reside in the antennae region alone. The sensory organs of the head are arranged like clockwork. Electron-microscope examination reveals interconnected rods and chambers, pleated dishes and prongs and plates . . . These take the mechanical and chemical environment and translate it into a tactical array of electrical impulses to the mosquito’s brain, a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.
If you’re anything like me as a reader, your imagination clings to that final explicit detail—“a brain the size of a pinprick on a piece of paper.” The rest I sum up this way in my head: mosquito brain = “complex” and “structurally organized” and “highly sensitive.” I probably won’t recall the part about the fifteen thousand sensory neurons, even though it impressed me at the time. But I’ll always recall this next paragraph, the descriptive part:
If a mosquito is released in still air, it will come directly to you even if you are standing one hundred feet away. Through the air, the mosquito senses the carbon dioxide of your breath, lactic acid from your skin, traces of acids emitted by skin bacteria, and the humidity and heat of your body. If there is a slight breeze, a mosquito may be able to locate you across the length of a football field . . . . Some people stink more than others. The degree of the stink, subtleties we may never comprehend with our noses, is like a field of wildflowers to a mosquito. (283, 287)
You feel them coming for you, don’t you? Those sensory neurons are important—but in the end, it’s the futility of escape I cannot stop thinking about. I’m trying not to sweat. And by the way, how long does it take to run the length of a football field?
TEACHING Word Choice
Here are seven things you can do to teach word choice.
- Read. It’s still the best strategy. Students need to read on their own—of course. But they need to be read to as well, even older students. You don’t have to read a 300-page book. Pick an excerpt, about the length of the ones I’ve chosen here. Quality and variety matter far more than length. Read aloud as often as you can—more than once a day, if possible. Read what you love so the passion comes through. The standards don’t call for students to love language, but without this, the rest doesn’t really matter.
- Encourage students to hunt up favorite passages. They can read them aloud to partners or in small groups or to the whole class. Or post quotations for everyone to read.
- Don’t shy away from picture books. Secondary teachers often think their students have outgrown picture books. This is interesting to me since picture books have an enormous adult audience. I buy them for friends all the time and so far no one has said, “Thanks, but I think I’m too old for this.” Maybe that’s because picture books are not what they used to be in the good old days of Dick, Jane, Spot, and Puff. On the contrary, picture book writing is arguably the most demanding genre. And in addition, many picture books today are written specifically with an adult audience in mind. The advantages of using picture books instructionally are many, but here are just two: (1) They’re short enough to share within a single class period, and (2) They hold students’ attention. I have found this to be true even with middle and high school students.
- Fill in the blanks. Take any passage you feel is especially well written, omit a few words or substitute something more banal, and ask students to fill in the blanks with their own versions. Here’s a short passage from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (2000, 272), detailing the famous match race between the small but gutsy thoroughbred Seabiscuit and the legendary War Admiral. It’s a tight race at this point, and Hillenbrand wants to use verbs that will capture the intensity. What would you put in the six blanks I’ve filled with something flat and ordinary? You don’t have to match Hillenbrand. Just make it sing! (I’ll give you the original at the end of this section.)
The horses WENT out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They MOVED shoulders and hips, heads GOING up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and MOVING in unison. The poles WENT by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and FELL behind.
- Focus on verbs. The CCSS do not make a big deal of verbs—but in my view, this is a serious oversight. Nouns, adjectives, and adverbs can be captivatingly powerful if they’re uncommon and selected with surgical care—if we’re finicky, as Zinsser puts it. But for sheer, raw energy, nothing beats the verb, as Diane Ackerman illustrates here: “The senses don’t just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern . . . The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” (A History of the Senses, 1990, xvii). I love picturing my senses tearing reality apart and feeding shards of info to my brain. That makes me feel alive—much more so than “making sense” of the world.
- Explore nuance. The thesaurus can be your friend or arch enemy. The secret lies in knowing precisely what you want to say. Words like smart, intelligent, mindful, savvy, clever, and cunning are related, but not interchangeable. Discuss groups of words like these, asking students to distinguish among them by using synonyms, explanations, and examples.
- Model. Create a business letter, short informational passage, or description as students look on. Pause one, two, or three times to ask for help finding the right word to express an idea. Talk about how words affect tone (voice) as well as meaning. If you’re agreeing to a job interview, for example, what’s the difference between saying “I’m dying to meet you!” and “I look forward to our meeting”?
What did she really write? Here’s Hillenbrand’s original passage. I’ve underlined the missing words so you can spot them easily. Notice she does not repeat—and she does not use first-word-that-came-to-me verbs like went or moved. As you compare what you (or your students) wrote, please remember that matching is not important. What counts is coming up with words that are striking, meaningful, original, and fitting (272):
The horses stretched out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison. The poles clipped by, blurring in the riders’ peripheral vision. The speed was impossible; at the mile mark, they were nearly a full second faster than a fifteen-year-old speed record. The track rail hummed up under them and unwound behind.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Right after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll present Part 3 of our look at the Core of the Common Core. In December, I’ll be reviewing Tom Newkirk’s new book, Minds Made for Stories, an insightful look at the true nature of narrative; and in early January, we’ll look at Lesley Roessing’s Bridging the Gap, an exploration of using memoir to master Common Core skills—and make important links to the six traits. You won’t want to miss either one. Meantime, Jeff and I wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings.
Thank you for coming. Please come often, and recommend our site to friends. And . . . to book your own personalized writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.
For ready-to-go writing lessons on the topics covered in this and the preceding post, please check out the following resources:
- The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching both traits and standards-based skills a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:
Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure to order our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.
- Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach ideas, organization, word choice, conventions and editing, and revision with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas and connections to the Common Core Standards for writing. Find it at www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e